'The Man with Many Faces'

My grandfather, Rolla Norman as Mâtho in 'Salammbô' - 1924

It’s very hard for me to like a lot of my relatives in my father’s family. His family was very complicated and twisted. Still is. Filled with dark secrets and many things that remained unmentioned from generation to generation.

Some relatives were good people but I was raised away from most of them.

I still remember and love one of my aunts, Tatie Mony, who acted very often as a surrogate mother for me, but only for me. Which was kind of unfair for my sister and brother, though.

I never met my grandmother. She died when I was a few months old.

I only have two pictures of her. One with her two sisters. She was 40ish. And one with her parents, brothers and sisters and she was two.

Since we never talked about her,  I only know that she was born in a very wealthy bourgeois family but that she was studying art in Paris when she met my grandfather, the ‘Man with Many Faces’. Which was very strange and fascinating at that time for a girl from her rather upper social class. I deeply regret that I never got to know her.

‘The Man with Many Faces’ was born Edouard Charles Normand in 1889, in Paris. He was an only child.

His parents sold milk, butter and cheese in Paris. They were Alsatian. Who remembers now that for several centuries, the Alsatians were French or Germans following the whims of war fate?

The name ‘Normand’ was not the real family name but the official one though. The old family name was ‘Nordmann’. My great-grandparents chose to Frenchify it in 1870 when they moved to Paris. ‘Nordmann’ was way too German. They chose to be called ‘Norman’ but the clerk in the Public Records Office made a mistake and added a ‘d’ at the end. They became ‘Normand’ i.e. native from Normandy.

Quite a joke but I’m sure they didn’t find it really funny. I never did when I was growing up and still using my maiden name.

So Edouard grew up in his parents’ shop. He was quite young when he entered the Paris Conservatoire. He graduated from it winning ‘First Prize’ in Drama and Comedy... which proved he was exceptionally talented.

I’ll never know why he chose this path. Nobody could talk to Grand-Père unless he wanted to talk. So he never told us (his grandchildren) and never told his children either about his motives for becoming an actor.

All I know is the story behind his stage name. He chose to be called ‘Rolla Norman’. ‘Norman’ made sense. And ‘Rolla’ was the title of a very long romantic and very dramatic poem from Alfred de Musset (1810-1857). Grand-Père got his diploma in Drama after declaiming this poem which is all about world-weariness and profound discontentment.

We all had to know by heart at least a few lines of Rolla to please Grand-Père. I still remember some.

Upon his double success, he was offered an engagement at the ‘Comédie Française’ (the French National Theatre) which he refused. Even now, every actor dreams of getting an engagement to the Comédie Française. But he said no. So very like Grand-Père.

He was 19 when he got his first movie part, in 1908. Remember, silent movies time.

He also went on the stage at about the same time.

This was his life from 1908 until 1914. He was on his way to become a famous movie star and a star of the French stage.

He was drafted in 1915 and decided to go into the air force. Logical move. What could be more glamorous than being a pilot? Except that he did not make it as a fighter pilot after all. He became a bombardier instead.

Funny story incidentally... well, not very funny actually. But in our very weird family, it became a funny story nevertheless. A few years after World War I (right before marrying my grandmother), they went to a formal family dinner.

My grandmother’s brothers were all military men following their father’s steps. In 1917, two of them were POW and guess who bombed their prison camp? They survived and this story became a legend in the family: the day Edouard almost killed his brothers-in-law. Funny, funny story. I told you before that this family was kind of twisted.

I don’t know how I managed to get those two pictures. But I did get them, kept them all those years, forgetting them only to find them in my  basement two weeks ago.

He couldn’t help it, could he? There he was, in a very bloody war where he could die any time, every time he was flying away on a mission. Look at his men and companions in arms. They look real. But you can’t miss him. (For those of you who don’t get my point, he’s right there, nonchalantly resting on one knee, a cigarette in his right hand, his other hand on the shoulder of a ‘friend’. Posing for the photographer and history.)

His best part at the time. Rolla Norman at war.

(to be continued...)

*Good Night, and Good Luck*

1 comment:

Bérangère Bossus said...

Belle évocation d'un personnage fascinant.
Mon grand-père ce héros...